Realistic Online Privacy Expectations

When sharing anything on a public or semi-public digital network, you must be willing to accept two maxims of digital content distributed over public (and often semi-public) networks:

  1. That it is timeless and permanent
  2. That it is accessible to anyone, and infinitely reproducible

To expect anything less is to deny the way the internet can — and often does — work. Too often, people seem to be surprised by the privacy issues created by their own actions; by their own thoughtless sharing. To ensure adequate privacy of personal information, one must be aware of the nature and consequences of digital sharing.

It should be noted, neither of these outcomes are guaranteed, but they are both very possible, and in some cases likely.

That it is timeless and permanent

Unlike paper — books, notes, letters — digital content does not decay. It does not fade away in the face of time. For the most part, it does not need to be maintained to remain. Once something has been digitized or created in digital format, it is essentially timeless, disappearing only by intentional deletion or neglect (like old storage being discarded or formats becoming obsolete). The limits of the physical world do not exist in the digital world — digital data is constrained only by the physical tools that are used to contain digital information. As data storage becomes more reliable and its cost decreases, the constraints of the physical world — the need for maintenance, the effect of time’s passing, limited space — become increasingly irrelevant.

When you are the sole proprietor of your data, it’s easy to delete, and in most cases unlikely to be recovered. But when it is made available on a network, it becomes another story entirely.

That it is accessible to anyone, and infinitely reproducible

With digital information, infinite copies can be made, with no loss of quality. Once something is on a network, anyone on that network can make copies, and it can be spread and duplicated endlessly, each copy being equal to the “original”. Therefore, deleting your information is not always enough. Once digital content has been released, if it has any relevance or value, it’s likely to continue to exist in one form or another, even after the “original” is gone. Backups and copies are made not only by other users but automatically by certain services. Archive.org, for example, is a “digital library”, providing access to many old websites. On sites like Facebook, “deleting” content removes it from the front-end of the service, but it can take more time before it’s deleted from their storage (and there’s no telling who of your “friends” has downloaded a copy).

Even if it can be accessed by only a single person, that person has the power to release it to the world. That’s why semi-public networks can still result in open access. As with any interaction, the only thing between “private” and “public” is trust: a network is only as private as its users. The larger the network, the more likely any content shared on it will reach someone unintended and untrustworthy.

To be able to share judiciously, it’s important to be aware of how digital content and networks work, and the potential consequences of digitally sharing personal information and media.

Posting a status update to Facebook or Twitter is not the same as saying it aloud to your friends; uploading a photo is not the same as passing a printed one around; putting family photos on a website intended only for friends and family is not the same as showing them the album. And crucially, neither are the consequences.

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